A shrub, also known as a drinking vinegar, is a mixture of simple syrup, vinegar, and fruit. As the craft beer market in the Twin Cities has exploded, so has the market for locally made artisanal spirits — and now, to go with them, switchels and shrubs are on the scene. Frequently used as mixers in cocktails, switchels and shrubs can also be used as exciting flavor boosters in sparkling water to create a sweet — but not aggressively so — and fruity nonalcoholic beverage.
Switchel and shrub beverages go back to the 17th century, and they have experienced a contemporary resurgence. Many manufacturers and health-food lovers believe that these beverages increase energy, restore electrolytes, and in some cases lower blood sugar. Claims aside, one thing we know is that the mixers are a new way of incorporating sweet and sour elements into drinks.
The mixers are made in a similar manner: Switchels (also called Haymaker’s Punch) are made by boiling ginger, with water, honey (sometimes maple syrup, molasses, or sugar), and cider vinegar. Shrubs are made by boiling macerated fruit (and / or herbs, seasonings, etc.) with water, sugar, and vinegar (cider or Champagne). In either case, the result is effervescent and fragrant.
Recently, we tried three shrubs from the local maker The Twisted Shrub: Apple Ginger, Pineapple Habanero and Strawberry Lime. This list will soon expand to include four additional flavors: Cranberry Clementine, Peach Habanero, Blueberry Lemon, and Apple Cinnamon. They are used by mixing a shot of the concentrate with a shot of sparkling water and combining with a shot of alcohol (if desired).
Although the biggest player in the old timey mixer space is Shrub & Co (based in California), other local options include Heathglen Farm & Kitchen (which makes syrups and shrublike products) and Saint Paul Switchel. In October, Twisted Shrub introduced its products at the Linden Hills Farmers Market and is slowly expanding into liquor stores around the city.
Of the three Twisted Shrub mixers we sampled, the Apple Ginger is the most balanced and enjoyable, closely followed by the Pineapple Habanero, which is similar in flavor profile. We used whiskey to make a cocktail with each and had a hard time telling them apart, the Pineapple Habanero discernible only in that it has a late heat, but with similar citrus notes.
What makes the Apple Ginger so enjoyable is a light tartness that skims along the acidic backdrop of the vinegar, accented by the apple’s sweetness. Overall, the sour levels of all three are agreeable and not as strong as they would be in a switchel, but we wouldn’t recommend drinking a glassfull of the concentrate. The Pineapple Habanero could stand to be a tad spicier, but given the Minnesota palate, it is satisfactory.
The Strawberry Lime is the sweetest, and thought it was the simplest of the three when we first tasted it. The label suggests mixing tequila with it for a margarita-esque drink, and this makes sense because of the shrub’s strong lime notes. But everything changed when we made our own impromptu concoction. Mixing the Strawberry Lime shrub and soda water with old genever (Dutch-style gin, which is maltier and more whiskeylike, with less of a juniper punch), and a squeeze of lime — garnished with a jalapeño slice — resulted in a fresh, flavor-blasted summer drink with a crisp, spicy finish.
Our experience trying Twisted’s shrubs reminded us that the best thing about these mixers is that they work on a variety of levels: from the basic, mixing a shot with soda water and a complementary spirit, to the more sophisticated, which may mean mixing several shrubs, artisanal apertifs, and perhaps even a dash of bitters.
The Twisted Shrub
$12 per bottle, each bottle makes 6-8 drinks.